The Cleveland Browns new head coach Mike Pettine has a novel concept when it comes to building his team’s philosophy. He wants to find out exactly what he has and then implement a style of play.
“We’re going to study the players first and then we’re going to go ahead and match the system to fit their talents,” Petting said to Nate Ulrich of The Akron Beacon Journal.
While the Browns will try and bring in a fresh new crop of talent this offseason, they will need players who are currently on the roster to step up and succeed. No team can make a positive jump if only the rookies and free agents are contributing.
Building an offensive and defensive philosophy based on the talent that is already on the roster is a great way for players to improve quickly. If they are put in positions to succeed, more often than not they will.
In 2013 it was wide receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron and safety T.J. Ward who had breakout years for the Browns. They will need a new group to rise in 2014.
Let’s take a look at the most likely candidates to make the jump from contributor to impact player.
After becoming the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft, outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo came to Cleveland with some hefty expectations. While initially living up to the hype, totaling three sacks in his first three games, he fell well short of a successful rookie season.
The rough year is tough to explain because he seemed to be a perfect fit for former defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s blitz-happy scheme. Something did not translate, however, and Mingo finished with just two sacks in his final 12 games.
His raw ability is undeniable. He has freakish speed and athleticism and plays the game at full speed all the time. The real question is can he become strong enough to keep from wearing down as the season progresses?
Pettine told the media Thursday that he is very familiar with Mingo and plans on having him add weight.
"It's pretty clear that [he has the frame to carry more weight]," Pettine said via Branson Wright of Cleveland.com. "That's something we're going push for him to do."
Look for Pettine to bulk up Mingo and use him as a hybrid pass-rusher who is moved around the formation. Expect him to play with his hand in the dirt as well as from an upright rushing position.
Pettine is a wizard at finding defensive mismatches and will give Mingo every opportunity to prove he was worthy of such a high spot in the draft.
While it seems unlikely running back Dion Lewis will ever be the focal point of a rushing attack, he has the makeup of a very effective complimentary back.
New Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s history shows that when he does not have an elite running back he will use multiple ball-carriers. In all but one season Shanahan has had at least two backs with 250 yards rushing.
In every season he did not have a back considered to be a “franchise guy” he had three running backs with at least 250 yards rushing.
Assuming the Browns do not stumble into a franchise running back this offseason, Shanahan will look to divvy up the workload once again.
Lewis, who missed the entire 2013 season with a knee injury, looked very promising in training camp and the preseason. He does not have the build or size to sustain 30 carries a game but could be easily get 10 as a change-of-pace back.
He is also very good catching the ball out of the backfield, something Shanahan likes in his offense. Despite Alfred Morris dominating the playing time for Washington last season, Roy Helu Jr. caught 31 passes out of the backfield.
If it weren’t for his counterpart at the safety position having an All-Pro season, Tashaun Gipson may have been considered a breakout player in 2013.
The 23-year-old former undrafted free agent from Wyoming got a shot at the safety position in training camp and never looked back. He finished with 95 tackles and five interceptions. He even returned one of his picks for a touchdown.
It was not just the stats that stood out but also his poised play through the season. After stumbling through the first six quarters of the year he quickly became one of the better pass-defending safeties in the league. According to Sportingcharts.com, Gipson was tied for the most passes defended by a safety with 12.
If Gipson breaks out in 2014 it will not be because of a scheme that puts him in the best position to succeed. It will be because he has another year in the NFL under his belt.
He already has the confidence that he can defend anyone in the league and now he just has to prove it week in and week out in the AFC North.
The Browns did not allow a 300-yard passer until Week 14 last year and did not allow a 100-yard rusher until Week 15. That says a lot about the safeties not giving up big plays.
The guy who was once the punching bag of Browns fans became a very solid NFL cornerback right before their very eyes in 2013. Buster Skrine had 65 tackles and an interception last season. Depending on where you look, his 18 passes defended were among the best in the NFL.
Despite all that, the Browns still ranked 23rd in the NFL against the opponents’ second wide receiver according to FootballOutsiders.com. This is a position of need and why I think Skrine could have a breakout year in 2014.
If the Browns draft or sign a true second corner then it will move Skrine back inside to the nickel where he belongs. While he is feisty and contests the ball very well he is still undersized and easily bullied in press coverage.
As a nickel back, Skrine will not have to press at the line and is free to use his burst and closing speed to help boost the Browns rating against second and third receivers.
One of the forgotten players on the Browns defense in 2013 was Jabaal Sheard. He started so quickly and looked to be making a very smooth transition to outside linebacker before injuries limited him the rest of the year.
Through the Browns first three games, Sheard had 1.5 sacks and was consistently putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Sheard then suffered a knee injury that kept him out of nearly one month of action.
Even though he returned to play 13 games, he was never the same. Sheard always looked a step slower and yielded the majority of the snaps on his side to Mingo.
Next season, with a clean bill of health and an extra year of practice at outside linebacker under his belt, he should be a prime candidate to break out.
Expect Pettine to use Sheard similarly to Mingo. He will be a versatile rusher who can be moved around the formation. Sheard, who has experience on the defensive line, is even more valuable because of that skill set.
Sheard is still just 24 years old and could be a cornerstone of a good defense for another five to seven years.